I may not pass this way again, but when I am old and living in the home, this is the day, this is the place I most hope to remember. And if my brain forgets, surely my heart and soul will hold it always.
The hike from Longmire to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground—so named for a Native American mountain guide who lived in the still-existing cabin (or so I thought, but now I realize it was built as a patrol cabin, the year my mother was born and on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991)—was a real butt-kick for this 65-year-old. It is the most strenuous, and at nearly 14 miles round trip the longest, hike I have tackled to date, and with the most elevation gain at 3200 feet.
I was on the trail at 8:30, an hour later than I had hoped on a day that was to reach 87 degrees at the mountain: a bit of a late start, phone communications at Morton before I lost contact for the day, 20 minutes of road construction delay at Mineral, donning knee straps and bunion guards, bathroom, stopping in at the ranger station to make sure of the route.
Very shortly into the hike, the trail begins its relentless climb, sometimes with switch-backs and lots of steps (which I find most difficult) for the first two miles. Oddly, I took no photos of the steps.
It levels out some then between the ups, before going steeply down to Kautz Creek (which is a river by most standards, at least in early summer, now a maze of fast creeks). And you know what down means: up on the return.
The river was interesting, necessitating several crossings of it and its tributaries, sometimes with a foot bridge and some rock hopping. There was also the path at the base of landslide area. (Just before I got there on the return, I heard what sounded like rolling rock or a falling tree, and arriving above the edge of the river, I saw a dust cloud very high up. Yikes.) And then a distance of boulder hopping with the route marked by a series of cairns, which I didn’t notice until I passed the last one. Oh, did I mention the trail follows a not-quite-dry creek bed part of the way? I followed the footprints of others, or I might have lost the path. Wilderness survival.
After the river, yep, steep upshit again. What comes down must go up.
The trail is seven miles of the Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain. It was a dream of my father’s to hike the Wonderland. I thought of him often. I read that it is considered more strenuous mile-for-mile than the Pacific Crest. Take that, Cheryl Strayed. I figured I did two miles an hour going up, knocked off an hour or so coming back.
Three hours in, Devil’s Dream Camp, with a toilet! And a bear pole. I was almost there.
The ranger at Longmire had given me a map. She wrote “Devil’s Dream Camp” on it. The next point on the map is an arrow pointing to Indian Henry’s. Not specific enough for me, as it turned out. I hiked on.
Finally I arrived at a small meadow, and a hint of the mountain. I walked on.
Another meadow, bigger. This might be it. Nice, not Spray Park, but sweet. But wait, where’s the cabin? Maybe this isn’t the destination? I should have paid more attention to the trip logs and photos. I walked on.
Finally, I came to a pond-filled meadow. It snatched my breath away, such enchantment! That Indian Henry was a lucky dude. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place. (The photos are just not enough to convey.)
I slowly traversed the trail past the lakes, Mirror Lakes as it turns out, stopping several times to drink in the extravagant beauty with its crystal clear waters. But there was still no cabin; could there possibly be more? It seemed hardly possible.
I ate my lunch on a rock next to water tumbling over small boulders. I swear what went through my head was that it was like a Hollywood set: too perfectly perfect to be real. I hope it doesn’t sound snobbish if I admit that the fact the vast majority of the population will never see this, made it even more attractive. I know how lucky I am: lucky to live here, lucky that my body allows me to stretch it this far, lucky that my parents instilled love for the wild places. I told myself over and over, “Someday you won’t be able to do this. But right now, this is the moment. You are here. Remember.”
As I sat, I imagined the meadow in three months, covered in snow, silent. So, so silent.
I walked on. Another meadow. No cabin. Kept going. Another meadow. No cabin. I was getting confused. Really should have paid more attention to the WTA website. I climbed up out of there, through a bit of woods and bear grass, into yet another meadow. No cabin.
I walked on in search of the elusive cabin. Thank goodness I knew to look for it, at least. I could tell from the open sky beyond the next copse there might be another meadow. It was more up, more darn steps. I really wanted that one to be it, prayed it would be; I was tired. It was a bigger meadow; so beautiful! I really thought this one was it and I just couldn’t see the cabin.
But I had to be sure. I knew I would flagellate myself if I got home and found I hadn’t gone far enough.
I continued across the meadow and up a rise, imagining Julie Andrews and the helicopter-toting camera swooping up the mountain and over the top into the magnificent vista. I could feel it, something was coming.
I topped the open-meadow hill, through the lupine and paintbrush and abundance of the Sitka valerian. What a tease. More meadow. More trees. A gateway, as it turned out.
Oh. My. Goddess. I stopped. And stared. And wept. And whispered the best prayer I know: “Thank you.” Here was the meadow. Here was the blue canopy sky. Here were more flowers than I thought possible. Here was Herself in full glory.
There was the cabin.
There were also the bugs. I had applied repellent and left it in the car. Mistake, especially since I had long sleeves on then. If the cost of admission was a tablespoon of blood, though, it was well under-priced.
I sat on the cabin porch, discovered another toilet up the hill in back, with a lovely view out the door, wandered to the edge of the meadow until it started down, overlooking another meadow.
I wished I never had to leave. The ranger was away, the shutters locked, but couldn’t I just stay there? Forever? There was firewood.
I don’t know if I will do this hike again: so many hikes, so little time. And it was really hard. But, like childbirth, you kind of forget when the payout is so great, so maybe I’ll return if body allows. And, by the way, thank you body.
A woman in the meadow told me she had been there many times, and never had she seen such a floral show. Maybe I don’t want to go back; I just want to hold this one glorious day. Some things are best left alone in singular splendor.
And at the end: Base Camp Grill.
A few days ago someone wrote in the guest register on the cabin’s porch bench: “If Paradise is next door, surely this is heaven’s gate.” Amen. For the record, I was there. If this place is not in my heaven, I don’t need an afterlife.